I was in Jordan yesterday. All over the world, people with limited knowledge of English rely on "number one" as an idiom to express satisfaction. A conversation with a cabdriver from Amman to Irbid. "Saddam number one. Arafat kteer kteer number one, number one, number one! Abu Mazen-- misch number one. Germany number one football. Brazil number one football. Argentina football-- misch number one. Fi kteer Yahud (too many Jews)."
The Jordanian army and police scare the living daylights out of me. I was on a bus full of Palestinian children. At a checkpoint, a Jordanian soldier got on and patrolled the crowded aisle, shoving his M16 in the children’s faces and shouting at the handful of adults to show their ID cards.
Our servis driver –a Syrian-- dissappeared for three-and-a-half hours on the Jordanian side of the border with Syria. Apparently he was being held by the friendly folks from the mukhabarat and we were left in the dark as to his wrongdoing and whereabouts. Finally he returned with his head hung low and declined to answer any questions. His trembling hands clamored the steering wheel as we sped through the border to the relative warm safety of Syria.
Crossing from Jordan to Syria, the dynastic father-son theme really hits you in the face. Within a few meters of each other, Hussein and Abdullah make room for Hafiz and Bashar. Surprisingly I saw many more portraits of the deceased father and his chubby offspring in Jordan, than in Syria. I have no love for the Jordanian royal family aside from their entertainment value, and unlike many from the west, I am not inclined to like Abdullah for his proper British accent. But the Jordanian royals are aesthetically less frightening than old Hafiz and Bashar, the chinless duo whose features are miraculously angular and shapeless at the same time. At the border crossing a real-life photo hangs next to a painted portrait of Bashar al-Assad; the painter generously gave him a chin, a more shapely nose and that steel-like stare. But he will never rival his father visually in terms of fierceness. They must hologram Hafiz's eyes; he watches you from every angle.
Jordan is the one of few places that makes me relieved to be in Syria. I was veritably ecstatic to see Hafiz's silhouette chiselled into rocks on the side of the highway and to watch moustachio'ed men sipping tea in the freezing cold at the bus station in Damascus. While waiting for additional passengers to fill the servis to Beirut, a fight broke out amongst a horde of teenagers pushing a tea cart. I watched from a safe distance and bought chewing gum from a five year old who promised me "no genetic". And indeed, the gum wrapper boasted "natural & industrial banana flavor" and no "genetic manipulation materials". I have never read the wrapper of sugar-rich gum; I wouldn't chew something that makes my teeth cry if I was concerned about the hazardous content.